MELBOURNE WEEKLY MAGAZINE
September 15-21, 2004
From post-punk St Kilda to seaside England, Nick Cave remains mad about music. By Debbie Kruger.
The seaside town in the south of England is known to many as “Hove actually”. This is the genteel response from residents constantly asked if they live in neighbouring Brighton.
In the way an Elwood resident might take pains to point out, “No, we don’t live in St Kilda”, Hove is seen as a more discerning location for the well-heeled than England’s Brighton.
While Brighton is bigger, more vibrant and a popular destination for tourists, Hove is quieter and more exclusive. It’s where actress Cate Blanchett reportedly had her enormous, ornate bathtub lifted into the upper level of her house by crane. It’s where imposing highceilinged houses and apartments look out on the English sea and the wide tree-lined streets provide plentiful, inexpensive parking.
Anyone who witnessed early performances of postpunk bands the Boys Next Door or the Birthday Party in St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom would be forgiven their surprise, 20 years later, on finding a calm, composed Nick Cave living quietly in the equivalent of Elwood.
Perhaps it’s not such a stretch. Cave has admitted to favouring the Brighton area exactly because of its similarity to St Kilda. These days, he has a young family (he and his wife Susie Bick have twin four-year-old boys) and an earnest daily approach to his work, so it makes sense he would choose the quieter end of that coastal strip to make his life.
Cave left Melbourne 24 years ago but his ties to home are strong. He visits his mother each year, usually around Christmas, and is occasionally back in the country for tours or other projects. He speaks thoughtfully and eloquently, but with only a touch of the English accent. For the most part he is still the misfit Australian boy who created fear, loathing and utter devotion in the hearts of audiences from his first performance with the Boys Next Door in an Ashburton church hall in August, 1977.
Back then he and his friends were motivated to create music from boredom, frustration and anger, and Cave a Caulfield Grammar boy who eventually dropped out of his art course at Caulfield Tech found himself drawn to the St Kilda scene and in particular its drug culture.
The ensuing years of heroin addiction and the behaviour on stage, in his writing, in personal relationships resulting from it has provided fodder for Cave aficionados, and especially for journalists, ever since.
“I’ve done a lot of interviews,” says Cave, reflecting on long-term perceptions of him. “I know there are people I’m going to disappoint. I can see it in the way they come in. I talk to them and I can see they’re not getting the person they were hoping to get, because they’re journalists and they want to make good copy.
“But I can also see that to some people it’s a relief. That, alright, we can leave that bulls aside and talk about something else. I’m more interested in that second lot of people than the first. And I’m sure that works with the fans as well; a lot of fans have invested a lot into all of that baggage. There’s a certain sense of betrayal they feel when I’m not coming up with more of it. But, you know, ’em.”
Since leaving Melbourne, Cave has lived in London, Berlin, São Paulo, and now Hove, never pausing to catch breath. With his band The Bad Seeds, he has recorded 13 albums, starting with From Her To Eternity in 1983 and the latest being the double set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, to be released September 20.
He has written an acclaimed and wildly esoteric novel, two film scripts, and contributed to many projects with and for other artists, such as writing songs for Marianne Faithfull’s upcoming album and singing in a Leonard Cohen tribute concert with folk and rock artists including Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, and Jarvis Cocker.
Despite drugs, failed love affairs and ill health, the music has never stopped; the songwriting muse has never deserted him. He cites the time of his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call as a “cut off point” when he turned his life around for the better.
“I think I found that all of that stuff was not helping at all, it was an incredible hindrance. Part of making music and being on a record label that allows me to do whatever I want to do is that I should be free to be able to go wherever I want to go musically. And in my life as well, I should be free to be able to pursue whatever kind of life that I want,” he says. “Not to be looked at and [have] them say, ‘Hang on, you’re not supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to be dead, you’re not supposed to be going to the office every day.’”
AROUND THE CORNER from his home is a flat that Cave rents to use solely from nine to five for writing. When he’s not writing, the flat is quite neglected. Shortly after recording and mixing his new album, in Paris and London respectively, Cave visited his “office” for the first time in months and some serious airing-out was required.
“I guess there’s been a certain amount of, on some subconscious level, effort to make my life appear as uninteresting as possible. I actually feel I lead an incredibly interesting life. It’s not all about being in this office; I have so much more in my life. But it’s stuff that no one’s really interested in talking about. So it’s great.”
Talking about his music is still an appealing option, though. Whether it’s work from earlier in his career that he still loves hard rocking songs like From Her To Eternity, The Mercy Seat and Mutiny in Heaven; tender ballads like Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For and Nobody’s Baby Now or his new album, which he asserts is the best of his career. Cave describes the process of writing songs, holed away in his office, being disciplined about his work hours, regardless of when inspiration might strike.
“I have a rule of thumb that I don’t work outside this office. I’m not quite sure why it’s like that, but I feel that I give a large amount of my time to this; I work it as a job. A job which I love. I don’t think creatively in the company of other people. I don’t think creatively with my children. My mind doesn’t work in the same way as it does when I’m alone here. I need solitude, I need the phone not to ring, I need friends not to visit, these sorts of things, just where I can go through whatever it is to get to what I’m trying to do.”
WHILE FANS OF CAVE’S dark, macabre and violent bent will find much to please on the new album, he also caters to those who have grown fond of his devotional ballads and gentler side. In either case there is a musical maturity at play; Cave respects the song above all other art forms and his years of refining the craft and immersing himself in literature from The Bible to Lolita to Roget’s Thesaurus are paying off.
“I love the immediacy of music, the reliability of a song, that you can play it again three weeks later and it still does the same thing to you. The mystery of the whole thing. I don’t know really why one note alone is just this kind of idiot noise but you put another note next to it, that suddenly turns into something that can change your life.
“And I suppose there’s something in the fact that my father always considered rock music to be right down the bottom. Like it was just something not even really worth wiping your shoes on. My father drummed that literature and poetry were the great spiritual aspirations of mankind.
“I always felt like I was doing the wrong thing with music; I should have been doing something more worthwhile. Until it suddenly dawned on me that I was. That actually music to me means a hell of a lot more, it reaches a deeper part of me than books that I’ve read.”
“I know deep down that I will always be kind of marginal and that my music isn’t stuff that’s going to be universally liked; that your average person, whatever that may be, is not going to really take to my view of things. But it’s the only view I have; it’s not something that I can do anything about. And I happen to be very fond of my view of things, so I don’t have any desire to do anything differently. But I do understand that it’s not for everybody.”
Cave was 21 when his father died in a car accident and the tragedy compelled him to commit his life to creating memorable work. “I do hope that my father would be able to see what I did now and review his opinion.”
Other than a foray into the commercial pop realm in 1995 when his duet with Kylie Minogue, Where The Wild Roses Grow, topped charts everywhere, Cave has been content with attention from the alternative side of the cultural fence and accepting of his limited appeal in a youth-oriented pop machine world. Regardless of who is watching his next musical endeavour, Cave will always work to please himself.
Debbie Kruger’s book on Australian songwriters is due for release in 2005.
Thanks to the Melbourne Weekly Bayside Magazine for supplying images for this page.